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"We have never felt free from Serbia", The Gurdian report on the tensions in the north of Kosovo
Sitting behind a bare black desk in a small whitewashed room in northern Kosovo, the village's mayor, Izmir Zeqiri, is still getting used to the glare of international attention. "It wasn't my intention to become a celebrity," he says as his cell phone rings repeatedly. "We thought more people would compete and we didn't imagine we could win."
This is not false modesty. Zeqiri is one of several hundred ethnic Albanians in the Serb-majority municipality of Zubin Potok, and his candidacy in the April elections was a symbolic gesture. But when Lista Serbe, the Belgrade-backed party that controls much of public life in the Serb-majority northern municipalities, decided to boycott the election and ordered Serb voters to follow suit, Zeqiri found himself in the eye of a storm.
He won 197 votes, with a turnout of 6%, 17 more than his only opponent, so he was sworn into office last week. Albanian mayors were also sworn in in the other three northern municipalities after an even lower turnout.
Boycotting Serbs, enraged by the prospect of rule by ethnic Albanians, took to the streets after Prime Minister Albin Kurti ordered the new mayors to take their posts. Tensions were so high that senior officials had to be escorted to their offices by special police units.
On Monday, NATO peacekeepers, concerned that the fighting could escalate, sent troops into the city's town halls. They were met by demonstrators who included masked men with guns and explosives. The Z symbol now synonymous with Russia's invasion of Ukraine was also emblazoned on vehicles. Thirty NATO troops were injured.
The violence alarmed the US, Kosovo's most important international ally. Washington reprimanded Kurt for ordering mayors to their offices and called for de-escalation. To underscore the message, American Ambassador Jeff Hovenier announced that Kosovo had been removed from a joint military exercise and that bilateral relations had been damaged.
But analysts are surprised by this reaction. "It was not the Kosovo police or the government that injured dozens of NATO peacekeepers. It was Serbian armed groups,” said Toby Vogel, a regional policy analyst.
SHBA dhe aleatët e saj po e veçojnë Kosovën kur më parë kishin thënë se zgjedhjet ishin në përputhje me ligjet e vendit, shtoi ai. “Sapo ndodhi kjo, mendoj se Kurti me të vërtetë nuk kishte shumë zgjidhje përveçse të detyronte që këta kryetarë bashkie të uleshin në bashkitë e tyre.”
Kosova shpalli pavarësinë nga Serbia në vitin 2008, një dekadë pas fushatës së spastrimit etnik të presidentit serb Slobodan Millosheviç kundër popullsisë së saj shumicë shqiptare. Kjo kulmoi në luftën e viteve 1998-99, e cila përfundimisht u përfundua nga një fushatë bombardimi i NATO-s.
Shumica e vendeve perëndimore, përfshirë Britaninë e Madhe dhe SHBA-në, e njohin sovranitetin e Kosovës, por Serbia dhe aleatët e saj Rusia dhe Kina nuk e njohin. Serbët vazhdojnë të përbëjnë pakicën më të madhe të Kosovës, me rreth 5% të popullsisë së saj, dhe ata janë shumicë në katër komunat veriore.
Zeqiri, një aktivist politik në bazë i cili ka kandiduar për kryetar komune një herë më parë, anashkaloi më të keqen e trazirave duke injoruar urdhrin e Kurtit – i cili udhëheq një parti tjetër politike – për të marrë detyrën në bashkinë e Zubin Potok. Në vend të kësaj ai u vendos në Çabër, një fshat shqiptar ku nuk pati protesta.
Si shumë në Kosovë, ai beson se disa protestues janë të lidhur me krimin e organizuar. "Ishte një javë mjaft stresuese," tha ai, me nënvlerësim.
"We are still in the process of forming our new cabinet, so it was unfortunate to see the revolt that was caused by these criminal gangs ... their actions run counter to our constitutional order."
Journalists on the ground reported many attacks, threats and intimidation, which suggested more than a spontaneous grassroots uprising.
In Çaber, 62-year-old Eshref Ferizi broadly welcomed the new approach, despite the violence. He hoped this would make life easier in northern Kosovo, which has existed in a state of limbo since the war, under Belgrade's de facto control.
"We live with great uncertainty, in a constant state of stress about what will happen," said Ferizi, as he walked with his grandson to school. "In these last 20 years, we have never felt free like the rest of Kosovo".